Sebastian Vettel believes Ferrari still have "options" to compete for victory at the Chinese Grand Prix despite Mercedes' dominance of qualifying for the historic 1,000th race in the Formula One World Championship.
Championship leader Valtteri Bottas will start on pole at Shanghai International Circuit, with teammate Lewis Hamilton – who has five China wins to his name – joining the Finn on the front row.
Vettel and Charles Leclerc are third and fourth having finished over three-tenths of a second behind Bottas, and it looks like a tough ask for them to deny Mercedes a third consecutive win this season.
Four-time world champion Vettel is aware the situation is far from ideal, but will not give up hope.
"[The gap] is too big – we'd like it to be the other way around, obviously," he said at the post-qualifying news conference.
"I think we had a decent session. Obviously important if we can't beat them to be right behind them, buying us some options [for Sunday], hopefully.
"On our side we were able to improve the car from where it was [on Friday], so I'm reasonably happy with that, but not entirely happy. I think there was a little bit more. It was a bit tricky to put the laps together.
"I think we are getting more and more there, understanding maybe some things related to different tracks, which Barcelona [testing] doesn't show because it's different. The car is strong, so it's up to us to extract the performance.
"They [Mercedes] are b****y quick in the corners. For us, when we get close, we have an advantage on straight line so maybe we can do something there. The race is long. Should be a good day [Sunday]."
Vettel defends pass after Verstappen complaint
Red Bull's Max Verstappen, who qualified fifth, was fuming after qualifying. As Q3 reached its conclusion, he was overtaken by Vettel and both Renault cars towards the end of his out lap and was ultimately unable to attempt a flying lap.
After the session, the Dutchman – who said the drivers who passed him had broken an "unwritten rule" – felt he had been denied a likely place on the second row.
But Vettel replied: "If you're at the end of the train, which I was, then it was quite difficult. And when the team told me we only have 10 seconds margin to cross the line in time to make another attempt, I had to think of something.
"I do not know if others were not told. If everyone would have sped up the way I did, then yeah, we would have all made it. But I obviously prioritised to make the lap. It felt like others were not aware.
"At that point I hurry up, I don't care what other people are doing, I want to cross the line. I'm surprised that no one else was told because it was not just Max. I overtook two Renaults and the Haas behind me."
Bottas cautious despite pole
The driver on pole has failed to win the first two races of the season, and Bottas is taking nothing for granted despite his impressive speed throughout the week, with Ferrari and Red Bull's race pace likely to be more competitive.
Bottas said: "That [the long-run pace] is something we will honestly find out Sunday but looking from Friday it's been pretty close among the top three teams, so there are many question marks.
"But [Saturday] is encouraging and we'll go for it. The weekend so far has been very good. Obviously [Sunday] is the big day but at least on single lap [we have] been competitive and as a team we've been super strong.
"Confidence wise I’m good. It's been a good start of the year, first of all for me personally and for us as a team. This was a good day and hopefully [Sunday] will be again, but it's a long season ahead."
Hamilton: I've been fighting the car but I'm much happier
The reigning world champion had struggled in practice on Friday - including an early spin while out on cold tyres – but was happy to be so close to the "stellar" Bottas, having ended up just 0.023s back.
"I didn't give up, I kept pushing. Valtteri has been stellar all weekend," Hamilton said.
"I've been fighting the car but I'm much happier. It was eight tenths at one stage so to be as close as we are at the end is fantastic.
"It's an incredible result for the team. Ferrari are particularly quick on the straights, but it's evident this weekend we've gained some performance through the corners."
1. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
3. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
5. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
6. Pierre Gasly (Red Bull)
7. Daniel Ricciardo (Renault)
8. Nico Hulkenberg (Renault)
9. Kevin Magnussen (Haas)
10. Romain Grosjean (Haas)
2018: Daniel Ricciardo
2017: Lewis Hamilton
2016: Nico Rosberg
Rain is almost certain not to be a feature of the race, with sunny intervals and a moderate breeze forecast for Sunday afternoon in Shanghai.